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Art of advocacy gets new face in graduate program

April 02, 2009

What is new is old.  What happened millennia ago is being given a fresh new face.  What was good for Caesar’s legions in the first century BC is being fine-tuned for 21st century messaging.

It is advocacy, and it is the focus of Arizona State University’s innovative and award-winning Master of Arts in Communication Studies program.  The program prepares students for communication-intensive roles in a wide variety of fields.  Graduates also pursue the Ph.D. and careers in teaching and research.

“The art of advocacy is an ancient one in Western culture,” says Vince Waldron, director of the program, who earned his Ph.D. from Ohio StateUniversity in 1989.  “Greek philosophers like Aristotle and the Roman scholar-statesperson Cicero wrote about its importance in democratic government.  For a democracy to function well, or a corporation for that matter, the governed must be able to articulate their concerns to leaders in a manner that is articulate, persuasive and ethical.”

The notion of advocacy – defined by Waldron as a calling to be a responsible representative for people, positions and organizations – is explored within the MA program.  Waldron described advocacy as a “calling,” and the program is designed to provide students with the intellectual and conceptual skills necessary to follow such a calling.  Graduates accept communication-intensive positions in public affairs, media campaigns, community relations, employee communications, technology-mediated communication systems, health communication, and many other fields.  Current graduates of the program are working with such high-profile organizations as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Coyotes, City of Peoria, Maricopa Community College District, Chevron Corporation, APS, and ASU’s Center for Behavioral health Policy.

Recently considered for disestablishment because of state budget constraints, the program received vocal support from community leaders, alumni, and its own students.  The program continues to grow and is currently accepting applications for the 2009 fall semester.  The priority deadline for applications is April 15, with a final deadline of July 30.

“This MA program is unique in that advocacy is at the heart of every class we teach, and this resonates with students,” says Waldron, who is the founder of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU and the author of three books on communication.

And while such versatile minds as Socrates and Cicero may serve as inspiration to advocates everywhere, today’s high-tech communication tools have significantly changed the game.

“The art of advocacy is both complicated and enriched in modern democratic times by the profusion of competing interest groups and the emergence of new communication technologies,” Waldron says.  “More than ever, advocates need to understand how to design effective campaigns, and how emerging technologies as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have radically changed how leaders of governments and private organizations communicate with their constituents.

“At the same time, over-reliance on technology may be creating a new generation of leaders who need assistance with the interpersonal, critical reasoning, and public-speaking skills that remain critical components of advocacy.”

Award-winning faculty in the program are leading researchers in areas such as communication in personal relationships, social implications of communication technologies, and the role of communication practices in sustaining cultural identities.

“Students consider advocacy in a variety of communication contexts,” says Waldron, who lists at work in government, media and in the nonprofit sector as examples.  “They study the knowledge and skills required of advocates, including persuasion, interpersonal communication, uses of new and old media, dispute resolution, and cross-cultural communication, and they study advocacy from historical, scientific and critical perspectives.”

Two-thousand years ago, Socrates, Cicero and others with voice and cause argued their cases for human rights, government largesse, virtue and ethics.  Today, the issues are no less important.

“There is so much to explore,” says Waldron.  “We can look at campaigns for green energy use and recycling, anti-crime campaigns, AIDS prevention in Africa, stem cell research, and religiously-based advocacy in such varied places as Pakistan, Tibet, Iran and the U.S.; these are the tip of the iceberg.

“The lesson we are sharing with students from across the country and even around the world is that, as advocates, we create new ways to voice concerns, resolve disputes, and give people a more direct voice in decision making.”

For more information about the graduate program in Mass Communications, contact Vince Waldron at or via phone at 602-543-6634.